Upstate New York native Jenny Vidbel has been living the circus life her entire life.
“I’m a third generation animal trainer,” she tell us. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do since I was four years old.
Vidbel’s grandparents created the family tradition, having met at Ringling Brothers where her grandfather was “shoveling poop for the elephants,” and her grandmother was riding horses. They fell in love, left Ringling and created their own circus, Vidbel’s Old Tyme Circus, with Jenny and her folks in tow.
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“My grandparents taught me that animals are our family and they’re to be treated with love and respect and that they come first," she says."That’s always been my philosophy in training and working with them.”
Today, Vidbel is a performer and animal trainer with the Big Apple Circus, which is parked at City Hall Plaza for its 35th seasonthroughMay 8. She brings her big-hearted, animal-lovingphilosophyto Boston, where she presents her well-trainedfleet of horses and dogs as part of the 1920's transportation-themed show.
For this particular show, the circus takes place in the middle of the city at City Hall Plaza. Where do the animals stay at night? How do they not freak out?
We have a portable stable set up in City Hall Plaza, and my trailer is right next to the tent so I can hear them at night and always make sure they’re OK. City life is what we do and we learn to tune things out — and so do the horses. They’re calm and relaxed as long we keep hay in front of them. They’re so used to traveling and being around commotion. We have six [horses] that perform in the show and three new horses who are training along, and 13 ponies.
There are also quite a fewdogs featured in the show. Are they rescues?
Yes, all the dogs in the show are rescues. ... Some are from places where they were treated very well but the families couldn’t keep them, and then others were in bad situations and not treated well. You have some super happy dogs who are happy to work with each other and then some that I’m working to gain their trust. They’re happy to get a treat but they’re still testing the waters.
Do all the animals wind up doubling as pets for the performers while you’re on the road?
When we’re traveling, the entire circus gives them priority. Everyone knows their names and comes for visits and brings apples and carrots. It’s a nice family feeling and during the off-time, I bring my animals to New York for some pasture time.
What’s the work-versus-play ratio for the animals?
We work in total 4 or 5 months out of the year and the rest is off for the animals. I have a lot of animals and I alternate to make sure everyone gets a nice vacation. Next season will be different animals, and the others can be at home, taking this year off, so they hang in the pasture and get fat.
What would you like people who are skeptical of the treatment of animals in the circus industry to know?
I think that they need to treat it on an individual basis. I can’t speak for the entire industry because there are bad people in this business like every business, but It’s frustrating to me that people would look at me and think I’m doing the same thing. It’s heartbreaking because these animals are my life and love. I go to bed thinking about them and wake up thinking about them. I spend my life making sure they comfortable and happy. I can understand people’s concerns because there are some not so nice things out there, but there are too many of us in the industry that would do anything for our animals and we get upset with the handful of others who aren't so nice.
Where’s the pasture, and who is overseeing it?
The farm is upstate New York, and it’s cold in the winter but it’s beautiful place to live. I have two people at home that stay on my farm and manage it.
What’s the been the weirdest animal you’ve had to train?
A capybara, which is like the world’s largest rodent. He was a cool dude, but also a challenge because his personality was very dry. He was going to do whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. We discovered he loved sherbet and I decided that we should make it look like he was singing so we filled a microphone with rainbow sherbet. he didn’t like raspberry, it had to be rainbow. That’s been my mantra for all the animals in the circus —we just find what they like to do and what they want to do and work with it. It’s pretty easy and shows in the ring that they’re happy.
If you go:
Big Apple Circus
Through May 8
City Hall Plaza